By Karen Billing
Mike Gibbs has been a part of the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District for more than 30 years — he initially joined the district as a 16-year-old volunteer performing hydrant inspections.
In July, Gibbs was promoted to deputy chief, overseeing the operations for the entire district and moving him into the administrative offices located at Cielo Village.
“I do miss being in the fire station, but, on the same hand, I really love coming to this position,” Gibbs said. “It’s a totally different facet of the district, a new way of seeing things, being exposed to different things and more challenges.”
While Gibbs has been a part of the RSF district on a voluntary basis since his high school days, he became a full-time member of the district in 1983. He is one of the longest tenured employees at the district, second to administrative assistant Karlena Rannals, who has him beat by a year — she has been with the district for 31 years, since 1982.
Gibbs brings a uniquely personal perspective to the job as he was born and raised in Rancho Santa Fe, attending the village school and was a part of the first class to go all four years at Torrey Pines High.
In those “good old days” he was a teenage firefighter.
“There was a TV show called ‘Emergency,’ I saw that and it inspired me,” Gibbs said. “I knew the fire department needed volunteers at that time so I just went.”
At the time, which was 1976, Chief James Fox led the department, there was just one station and few paid staff members, the rest were volunteers.
Through a work experience program at the high school Gibbs earned school credits for his volunteer work. He would start his day at Torrey Pines, finish up school and come to the station, assisting on calls and doing odd jobs, such as the hydrant maintenance, address verification and district mapping. Some nights he would work the night shift which meant he would spend the night at the fire station and take the bus to school in the morning.
“It was a lot of fun,” Gibbs said.
The Monday after Gibbs graduated high school in 1978, he went to work for the U.S. Forest Service as part of its seasonal fire crews. He worked on the Palomar “hotshot” wildland fire suppression crew and timber stand improvement crew, doing prescribed fire (also known as controlled burning) and understory thinning.
He worked the fire seasons while attending Palomar College through 1981, when he went north to Sonoma State to get a degree in business management.
After graduating college he returned to the RSF Fire Department and became a full-time firefighter in 1983. He was promoted to captain in 1990 and became a battalion chief in 2006.
Firefighters are always described as brave, running into an emergency when everyone else is running out. But Gibbs doesn’t think about fear, he’s simply driven by serving the community.
“I don’t remember ever being afraid per se, to me it was just exciting,” Gibbs said. “It’s pretty amazing that you are able to help people.”
During his many years as a firefighter he’s had his share of “goofy” calls — rescuing a family of ducks from a storm drain, a cat from inside a home’s wall, and a family of raccoons that fell through a skylight.
He’s battled big fires throughout the state and locally with the 1979 Bernardo Fire, a wildland fire that started in Black Mountain and spread to the Ranch destroying six homes, and the Witch Creek blaze of 2007, which destroyed 61 homes in the district.
“The Witch Creek fire had the biggest impact on me, not that I never expected a fire of that magnitude to hit, because I knew it had the potential for that and I’d seen an awful lot of fires throughout the state have a similar impact, but the fact that this burned into the community I grew up in,” Gibbs said. “I had a lot of friends who had homes destroyed in the fire. From an emotional standpoint, it was the biggest fire for me.”
He said he still can’t believe that it happened to the extent it did and spread so far —aided by the Santa Ana winds, it started in Julian and ended up in Rancho Santa Fe in 15 to 20 hours, burning more than 20,000 acres.
Even if it seems as though things are quiet in the district, RSF firefighters stay busy as part of the state-wide Master Mutual Aid System. RSF firefighters dispatch units to assist during incidents when regional resources are depleted. They can stay for a couple weeks at a time; most recently, RSF crews were fighting the Silver Fire in the San Jacinto Mountains.
Station 4 in Cielo houses an Office of Emergency Services (OES) engine owned by the state that goes out with the OES strike team whenever it’s needed.
The mutual aid system works the other way too — when the RSF Fire Department’s resources were stripped at the time of the Witch Creek fire, a strike force team from San Francisco was one of the first to arrive on the scene.
Gibbs said not to worry, even though crews are dispatched throughout the state, their stations are always backfilled and fully manned.
Gibbs has enjoyed his time in Rancho Santa Fe, the family that has developed and the district that has grown tremendously — there are now four stations instead of just the one, covering developed areas where Gibbs used to hunt and explore as a kid.
Being a firefighter is a rewarding job, one in which Gibbs said people are always grateful to see you as “you’re offering help to make things better.”
“There’s no other profession where people will open up their doors to you at 2 a.m. and let you in without question,” Gibbs said. “You have the expectation of the community to be there and I think that’s neat.”
He said he has no regrets about what he did, essentially choosing his profession at age 16.
“The way I look at it, I’m giving back to the district what they gave to me. They gave me the latitude and the tools to keep moving on,” Gibbs said. “It’s definitely the best job in the world and I wouldn’t have done anything different.”